Friday, August 1, 2014

Tell a story with your sentences

A story in six words.
In my last post, I explored the use of conflict to put energy into business writing.

I've just come across a fascinating idea: that individual sentences can introduce tension and tell little stories.

This comes from Constance Hale, an accomplished writer who wrote a series of instructional pieces for the New York Times on sentences. In the first piece, she writes:
For a sentence to be a sentence we need a What (the subject) and a So What (the predicate). The subject is the person, place, thing or idea we want to express something about; the predicate expresses the action, condition or effect of that subject. Think of the predicate as a predicament — the situation the subject is in. 
I like to think of the whole sentence as a mini-narrative. It features a protagonist (the subject) and some sort of drama (the predicate):The searchlight sweeps. Harvey keeps on keeping on. The drama makes us pay attention.
She draws from novels to illustrate her point:
  • “They shoot the white girl first.” — Toni Morrison, Paradise
  • “Elmer Gantry was drunk.” — Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry
  • “Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.” — Ha Jin, Waiting
Let's look for examples in the business world:
  • Foreign intelligence services from China, Russia, and other nations are exploiting cyber vulnerabilities to steal technology, money, and trade secrets from US corporations, threatening their reputations and undermining their competitive advantage. ~ Booz Allen Hamilton
  • Does mobile commerce spell the end of traditional stores? ~ McKinsey
  • As Europe continues to grapple with sovereign debt problems, austerity measures, and recession, the Eurozone is changing and will likely emerge from the ongoing crisis looking quite different from the one we know today. ~ Price Waterhouse Coopers
These are wordy, of course, but they suggest how individual sentences can introduce drama into otherwise staid writing.

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